Patients flood emergency rooms at Chicago area children’s hospitals, causing long wait times. Doctors urge parents not to bring kids to ERs unless necessary

·4 min read

CHICAGO — Chicago area doctors are pleading with parents not to bring their kids to hospital emergency rooms unless necessary, saying that an unusual surge in respiratory illnesses is flooding ERs with children and leading to long wait times.

University of Chicago Comer Children’s Hospital is seeing 79% more patients in its ER compared with the same time two years ago, said Dr. John Cunningham, physician-in-chief. That’s led to wait times in the ER of up to four or five hours for kids with less severe problems, after they’re triaged, he said. All patients are triaged when they arrive at hospital emergency rooms to determine who should be prioritized for care.

Wait times in the ER at Lurie Children’s Hospital are up by about 300%, said Dr. Elizabeth Alpern, division head of emergency medicine. Lurie is seeing about 80% more kids in its ERs this season compared with the same time last year, and about 25% more compared with previous years, she said.

Advocate Children’s Hospital, which has two campuses with ERs, is seeing the most ER patients its ever seen in the months of August and September, said Dr. Frank Belmonte, chief medical officer. Wait times for kids with non-severe conditions are now often two to six hours, he said.

Much of the increase in kids heading to ERs is due to an unseasonal spike in respiratory illnesses other than COVID-19, doctors say. Also, amid this latest COVID-19 surge, some parents may be bringing in children with only mild to moderate symptoms because they’re worried they have COVID-19, or they want COVID-19 tests so their kids can return to school, doctors say.

“We’re seeing a lot of children with non-life threatening respiratory illnesses who are coming to the emergency room, and we would recommend many of those with mild viral symptoms should be seen by their pediatricians or seen in an urgent care situation,” Cunningham said.

Normally, many children get respiratory illnesses such as respiratory syncytial virus, known as RSV, during the winter. But, this year, RSV hit early. Doctors say that is likely because many children were isolated at-home last winter and not exposed to the sickness until recent months when they started returning to day cares, socializing and going back to school.

“We anticipate this is actually going to get more severe as we enter into the winter months,” Cunningham said.

A national nursing shortage is exacerbating the situation, Alpern said.

“That is overwhelming the health system and is (making it) difficult for us being able to see those patients who truly have illnesses that need emergency care,” she said.

If the state has a bad flu season, or another COVID-19 variant takes hold, “it’s going to be really hard to manage” for hospitals, Belmonte said.

City and state health leaders as well as those from half a dozen Chicago area hospital systems are urging parents to bring children to their pediatricians or urgent care centers if their symptoms are not severe. Parents should start by calling their pediatricians, who often have answering services that can page them with questions during nonbusiness hours, they say.

Parents seeking COVID-19 tests should not go to hospital ERs, they say. Many urgent care centers offer testing, as do pharmacies and health systems.

Information about COVID-19 testing sites in Illinois and Chicago is available online.

That’s not to say, however, that all parents should avoid ERs.

Children should be brought to ERs if they are experiencing severe chest pain, trouble breathing, fainting, coughing up blood, severe asthma attacks, severe dehydration, severe allergic reactions, serious injuries, changes in mental health status, seizures, high fevers with headaches and stiff necks or sudden changes in the ability to walk, speak, see or move. Parents should also bring in babies 2 months old or younger with temperatures of 100.4 degrees or higher.

If a child is not responsive or is having a life threatening emergency, parents should call 911.

“The COVID-19 outbreak remains under good control in Chicago — we are averaging just one COVID hospital admission a day for those under 18 — but this surge in local emergency departments is concerning,” said Dr. Allison Arwady, Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner, in a news release. “While I encourage parents to continue to take all the normal preventive measures to protect the health of their children, including getting them vaccinated if they’re eligible, they should only seek care at an emergency department if their child is seriously ill.”

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